Years before the expression "race to space" denoted the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, two Hollywood moviemakers were locked in a competition of their own. Producer George Pal was taking pains with his production of Destination Moon, spending well over half a million dollars on the film, working with scientists and space travel experts to create an avalanche of advance publicity. B movie maven Robert L. Lippert decided that his company could quickly knock out a half-alike film, beat Pal to the finish line and take advantage of his rival's initiative and costly promotion. Lippert's film was Rocketship X-M.

"I don't know how much artistic value Lippert gave to a piece," the film's star Lloyd Bridges recalls, "but he was crazy about motion pictures, and had seen just about every one that was ever made. Most of the things he did were the so-called B pictures of the day, but he made his impression on the business I think. With Rocketship X-M, we did beat our competitor, Destination Moon. And they paid a lot more for their production. We kind of took advantage of the publicity they were putting out -- people weren't quite sure whether they were seeing that picture or our picture."

Lifting off from the Government Proving Grounds in White Sands, New Mexico, the multistage RXM is the first manned rocket into space, with a lunar landing and exploration planned. But a storm of meteors sends the rocket off in a new direction at incredible velocity, toward Mars.Taking advantage of the opportunity, the crew of five -- Bridges, John Emery, Osa Massen, Hugh O'Brian and Noah Beery Jr. -- land and scout the planet's barren surface, finding evidence of a long-ago civilization destroyed by an atomic war. Savage Martian cave dwellers attack, killing Emery and Beery and wounding O'Brian. The survivors escape aboard the RXM, but a fuel shortage spells disaster. After shortwaving a full report to the base, Bridges and Massen declare their newfound love for one another as the rocket plunges to a devastating crash landing on Earth.

"I begged the director not to shoot that love scene, when we're plummeting to Earth and we pour out hearts to one another," Bridges asserts. "I told him, 'You know, at a time like that, it just doesn't make sense.' It seemed so wrong to me to destroy the illusion; I was sure people would laugh at it. But he insisted, and who knows whether he was right or not."

The director, Kurt Neumann, is best recalled today for his science fiction films such as Rocketship X-M, Kronos and The Fly, but Bridges remembers him mostly as "a man who believed we had to do it fast. We had a very short schedule. I think maybe ten days or something like that. When we went out on location to film the scenes of Mars, we went out to Death Valley, and we had to put on our own wardrobe and makeup en route, in the plane, so that as soon as the plane landed, we were ready to work right away.

"Everything went smoothly and fast [in the Death Valley scenes]. It had to -- or else they'd just skip the scene. I always felt that we should never have seen any of the Martians, they should have been just shadows. Imagination is stronger than actually seeing. (Not many of my suggestions were taken, as you may have noticed!) But I did think that the red tinting of the Martian scenes was a good idea, and Death Valley turned out to be a good location for us. It looked a bit like what we later found out the Moon was like.

The Rocketship X-M interiors, Bridges continues, were shot "in the studio. I don't know how much of that [aeronautical equipment] was real; it was before its time, so I guess they figured they could be pretty freethinking about it. They were a bit crude, all of the Rocketship X-M effects, when you look at 'em today."

Bridges also remembers the cast as a "very congenial" group of actors. "Osa Massen we don't see much of lately, but for quite a while we kept in touch. She was a very sweet person; she had been an editor for some time before she became an actress, She had a fascinating kind of personality, I thought, and she was a beautiful girl. In fact, Hugh O'Brian was very much in love with her -- I guess we all were. John Emery was quite the Shakespearean actor, always spouting Shakespeare, and as a matter of fact, a lot of people thought he was very much like John Barrymore. I remember that he kind of patterned himself after Barrymore to a certain extent; he always had some sort of Barrymore-like comment to make about everything. I think he was trying to figure out how he found himself in the desert, among the rocks, making Rocketship X-M, when he should have been in the theater doing Shakespeare!"

Bridges asserts that the people behind Rocketship X-M had no idea it would become any sort of classic. "I'm not sure that it has -- has it? Well, because it was one of the first films of its sort, I guess it might be true. I don't remember that it did my career much good. It was considered a B picture, and you never make much of an impression on the industry if you're in a B picture. Not even if you're in a good one." Does he consider Rocketship X-M "a good one?" I like it, except that last love scene continues to bother me. I just can't imagine that any two people would be that calm about it all."

Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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